Tagged: Angel of the Lord

The Lord of Armies on his throne (Part 1)

With the Book of Isaiah, we enter a new phase in the angel of the LORD’s appearances. Having mostly visited covenant partners like Abraham and Jacob, national leaders like Moses and Joshua, and deliverers like Gideon, the divine messenger now reveals himself to prophets at key points in the history of Israel and Judah. 

We begin in Isaiah, with a spectacular view into the throne room of heaven, where the LORD sits enthroned and the angel is implied but not identified. Later in Isaiah, the angel of the LORD is named as the warrior who sweeps through the Assyrian camp and slaughters 185,000 soldiers. As our study progresses, we watch the angel blaze across the sky in a chariot of fire (Ezekiel), approach the Ancient of Days to receive his kingdom (Daniel), and stand among the myrtle trees to counsel his spokesman (Zechariah). 

These appearances are some of the many ways God expresses his presence in the books of the prophets (Isaiah to Malachi). According to Vern Poythress, theophanies recorded in the writings of the prophets most often occur in four contexts. First, the LORD comes to commission a prophet. Second, he announces divine judgment, either on Israel or its enemies. Third, he declares salvation and deliverance for his people. And fourth, he reminds the people of God’s redemptive work in the past.

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The angel of the Lord appears to Manoah and his wife

Judges 13

The sixth and final cycle of judges involves Samson from the tribe of Dan (13:1 – 16:31). By this time, the Danites have abandoned their God-given territory in the land of the Philistines, leaving Samson’s family and a few others in a refugee camp (13:25). Even before he is born, Samson is under a Nazirite vow, which he violates eventually by touching an unclean dead lion (14:8-9), taking part in a drinking feast (14:10), and shaving his head (16:19).

Equally tragic, his Spirit-charged physical strength proves no match for his untamed sensual passions. Encounters with three women, presumably all Philistines, lead to his capture and blindness. As the hair of his Nazirite vow begins to grow back, and especially as he calls out the LORD, Samson receives the power for one last feat: the ability to pull down the pillars of a pagan temple and kill more Philistines in death than throughout his life (16:30).

But this story has a most curious beginning, one that features two visits from the angel of the LORD. Judges 13 opens with a familiar refrain: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the LORD’s sight” (v. 1). In response, Yahweh hands them over to the Philistines for forty years. Normally at this point we see a cry for deliverance, but there is nothing of the sort here – although Judges 14:4 and 15:1 hint at an Israelite cry for deliverance. It seems Israel’s attitude toward its oppressors has changed. Rather than plead for Yahweh’s help, the people are resigned to coexistence with the Philistines. Thus, “Yahweh must seek and create an occasion to disturb the relationship between oppressor and oppressed (14:4).”

Enter the angel of the LORD, who appears to the barren wife of Manoah. The angel confirms the woman’s inability to bear children, then promises her a son. He instructs her to follow strict dietary laws during her pregnancy, and not to cut her future son’s hair. The reason: Her son is to be a Nazirite to God from birth and will begin to save the people from the Philistines (13:5). Nazarite vows include abstinence from wine and other alcoholic beverages, separation from corpses and other sources of defilement, and uncut hair. 

This is a peculiar prophecy. According to Numbers 6:1-21, Israelite men or women could voluntarily take a Nazarite vow, yielding themselves completely to God for a period of time. But the angel tells Manoah’s wife that her future son, Samson, would have no say in the matter; rather, the boy would be a Nazirite from birth. And since his hair never is to be cut, he is dedicated to the LORD his entire life. Like the prophet Jeremiah, Samson is called to the role of deliverer before he is born.

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The angel of the Lord appears to Gideon

Judges 6:11-24 

Apostasy is a recurring theme in Judges 3-16. The Israelites consistently violate their covenant with Yahweh, embracing idolatry and immorality. They overlook – even celebrate – lying, cheating, stealing, deception, adultery, and murder. When the LORD brings down the hammer of retribution, the people cry out for relief from their divinely appointed tormentors. No doubt, these perilous times are the fulfillment of the covenant curses outlined in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.

In the opening verses of Judges 6, we learn the Israelites have suffered for seven years under Midianite cruelty. The Midianites are a seminomadic people of the Sinai Peninsula and western Arabia. According to Genesis 25:2-4, they are distant relatives of the Israelites, being descended from Abraham by his second wife, Keturah. The relationship between the Israelites and Midianites is tenuous, to say the least.

For starters, Midianites play a role in the sale of Joseph to Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36), although Joseph comes to see it as divine providence (Gen. 45:4-8; 50:19-20). Later, the Midianites provide Moses with a safe haven after he flees Pharaoh. What’s more, Moses takes the daughter of a Midianite priest as his wife (Exod. 2:15-22). God sends Moses back to Egypt from Midian (Exod. 3:1 – 4:23), and after the Israelites escape from Pharaoh, Moses leads them to Midianite soil, where they enter into a covenant relationship with Yahweh and receive the Torah (Exod. 19 – Num. 7). Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, even has a hand in Israel’s civic affairs (Exod. 18). 

But once the Israelites leave Sinai, their relationship with Midian begins to sour. Moses delivers a severe blow to the Midianites at the LORD’s command. He recruits a thousand warriors from each Israelite tribe and wages war with Midian, killing every male as well as the Midianites’ five kings. The Israelites also kill Balaam, the prophet for hire who had led them to intermarry with the Midianites. Moses also commands the people to plunder the livestock and property, burn down the cities, and kill every woman, sparing only the virgins, for the older women are the ones who actively participated in leading the Israelites astray (Num. 31:1-18). 

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The angel of the Lord in the time of the judges

The Book of Judges introduces us to Israel’s arduous struggle to maintain control of the Promised Land between the death of Joshua and the anointing of King Saul. While conquest of the land is relatively quick, settlement of the tribal territories proves challenging. There are pockets of strong resistance, and worldly allures, that lead many of the Israelites to adopt a policy of coexistence rather than total conquest.

A loose tribal confederacy emerges after Joshua’s death. The Spirit of God empowers various leaders, called judges, to deliver the people from their common enemies. For the Israelites, there are six cycles of sin, distress, and salvation, which form the core of the book structured around six major judges and six minor ones (3:7 – 16:31).

The Hebrew word for judge (shophet) is closely related to the verb shaphat (“to judge”), and also to mishpat(“justice”). Judges maintain justice and settle legal disputes. The term also may apply to governors, and in the Book of Judges we see God raise up special leaders who judge, administer, and deliver. The word shophet in Judges is used once in reference to the LORD (11:27), six times in reference to those who deliver Israel under God’s power or Spirit (2:18; 3:9-10; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14), and seven times in relation to judges who serve as administrators (4:4; 12:8-9, 11, 13-14; 15:20). Throughout the Book of Judges, these Spirit-empowered leaders save the Israelites from their enemies as Yahweh judges their hearts and demonstrates divine grace. 

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The Angel of the Lord and a Talking Donkey

The background in the previous post helps us better understand the encounter between Balaam and the angel of the Lord. At the beginning of Numbers 22, the Israelites are camped on the plains of Moab near the Jordan River, across from Jericho. They have just defeated the Amorites, and the Moabite king Balak fears the Israelites plan to overthrow him. So, he sends a diplomatic envoy to Balaam of Pethor in upper Mesopotamia, a distance of some four hundred and twenty miles, which requires roughly twenty-five days of travel in each direction. 

Seers of the gods in ancient times are called upon to place or remove curses, pronounce blessings, and provide counsel. Their techniques include divination, incantation, animal sacrifice, and the reading of omens. They are skilled at manipulating deities to bring about the result for which they are paid handsomely.

Balaam’s reputation is well known. An inscription in a temple at Deir ‘Alla, Jordan, discovered during a 1967 excavation, recalls that Balaam, son of Beor, a “seer of the gods,” has a frightening night vision that foretells a period of drought and darkness, of mourning and death, in which the natural order of the world is reversed. Balaam implores the goddesses Ashtar and Sheger to bring light, rain, and fertility to the land. Evidently, the goddesses deliver, for the structure at Deir ‘Alla and its wall inscriptions may have been built to honor them, and to acknowledge Balaam’s successful mediation. In any case, Balak sees a potential ally in Balaam, to whom the king says, “I know that those you bless are blessed and those you curse are cursed” (Num. 22:6). 

The king is counting on Balaam. Ancient Near Eastern texts record the power of priests and prophets to discern, intervene, and even manipulate the will of the gods through means of augury (the interpretation of omens), special sacrificial rituals, and verbal pronouncements of blessing or cursing. Surely, this renowned prophet, who has called successfully on Ashtar and Sheger, is able to manipulate the will of the Israelite God.

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